Why Porgy and Bess has stayed relevant since 1925

Ensemble Theatre Co. – “Porgy and Bess” 2/9/17 The New Vic Theatre

A jazz interpretation of the American opera “Porgy and Bess” debuts this weekend at the New Vic Theater in Santa Barbara, starring actors Elijah Rock and Karole Foreman.

Composed by George Gershwin, “Porgy and Bess” tells the tragic story of the love between a crippled beggar and a beautiful yet broken cocaine addict and prostitute. It was first performed in 1935, and featured an entire cast of classically trained African-American singers—a daring artistic choice at the time.

KCRW’s Larry Perel spoke with Rock and Foreman about the history behind the production and why the story is just as relevant today.

Karole Foreman and Elijah Rock in Porgy and Bess. (David Bazemore)

Gershwin’s opera was originally developed out of a 1925 novel by DuBose Heyward called “Porgy,” which was adapted by his wife Dorothy into a 1927 play. What are you drawn to from that original material?

Karole Foreman: What’s interesting to me is how much of Dubose and Dorothy’s work still is in tact. Even the lyrics in “Summertime” is Dubose’s poetry.

Also, Dubose received a lot of flack from the literary community in the South for writing a piece with  dimensional characters, back when most blacks were not depicted as full human beings. Gershwin had been watching it and was really moved. That’s what I appreciate – the meeting of minds to come together and create a piece like this.

Elijah Rock as Porgy. (David Bazemore)

Elijah Rock, you’re releasing an entire album of Gershwin tunes this spring called “Gershwin for My Soul.” What do love about his music, and what brought you to this production?

Elijah Rock: Gershwin has been a part of my life since the beginning of my formal training as a vocalist. In 2015, I did a show called “Words by Ira Gershwin,” with the musical director Kevin Toney. That was a jazz interpretation as well, and those arrangements were swinging, so when I found out that Toney was going to be working on this adaptation, I had to. I’ve been wanting to play Porgy for a long time.

What’s your favorite part of this rendition of the opera?

KF: We’re going back to the original source material, which was black American music – African rhythms, blues, gospels and spirituals. I love being in the experience of rediscovering that.

Elijah Rock and Karole Foreman as Porgy and Bess. (David Bazemore)

Does the story draw parallels to what’s going on in the world today?

KF: Yes, absolutely. Especially the relationship between the black community and law enforcement. The problem of drugs. The problem of violence. They’re not just problems for people of color, but serious problems we have in all communities across the country.

ER: Our head costumer wanted to set the opera in modern day, post-Katrina times. That tells you the relevance in terms of the story, themes, and what urban communities are still going through. How abject poverty is still relevant in black and brown communities, and how we stick together as a community. The love and spirit of our culture.

It really says a lot about George Gershwin to be so impassioned to create a piece for this community. He has a declaration that no other race can play these roles, and that says a lot. His heart was in the right place, and that’s why this piece will forever be timeless.

Elijah Rock, Karole Foreman, and Frank Lawson in Porgy and Bess. (David Bazemore)

What should someone who knows the original opera expect when they sit down to watch this jazz production?

KF: The attempt to reinvent this opera is pretty monumental. When you approach a piece like this, there are a lot of people who feel a lot of ownership. Initially, people said it’s not acceptable as an opera because you have all these black Americans singing this classical music. Now, it’s completely owned by a certain segment within the classical community, and they say you can’t redo it as a jazz opera.

Come to see the piece with fresh ears. At the heart of it, no matter what lens you’re peering at it through, the story is the most important thing.

Porgy and Bess runs through February 26th at the New Vic Theater